Faustus, Freedom, Knowledge and Distraction

Continuing with my theme of alliterative titles, today I want to explore one of the tensions between the 1604 and 1616 editions of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. The introduction to our text tells us that there are two broad versions of the text, the A text and the B text. The A text was written in 1604. The B text appeared later in 1616. It is noteworthy that both texts, then, appear after the death of Marlowe, and neither can be said with assurance to represent his definitive vision for the play. But that’s not what interests me here (though the issue of authorship and whether the play has a definitive vision are interesting). What interests me here are the changes that are made between the A and the B versions. Most specifically, the A version seems to assume that Faustus is not free to repent. While the good angel may entreat him to repent, and the demons may fear that he will repent, the A text gives an “insistent suggestion that his despairing inability to will his own salvation is due to the withholding of divine grace.” (Pg. 55)The B text, by contrast, tends to remove much of this suggestion.

How does this suggestion, its presence or its absence, change our reading of this text? If he is unable to repent on his own, because true salvation requires divine intervention, and that intervention is being withheld, then I’m curious why the good angel begs him to repent, saying ‘Faustus, repent yet, God will pity thee.” (Pg. 117)  And why Mephastophilis seems to fear that he will repent and keep distracting him with things like the seven deadly sins, or Helen of Troy as his wife. In short, if his fate was sealed from the moment he signed his soul away, why don’t the angels just give up, and why do the demons show fear?

Perhaps it is because they don’t know that his fate is sealed. There is, here, a gap between what is believed to be the case and what actually is the case. Neither Faustus, nor Mephastophilis nor the good angel seem to realize that Faustus cannot be saved through any act of his own. Not realizing the futility of their acts, they throw themselves behind their goals in earnest, trying to get what they want. In some ways, this makes the role of the good angel doubly tragic. Not only is he fighting a losing battle, in fact he is fighting a lost battle. The battle was lost before he even began to fight, and the tragedy is that he just doesn’t know it. Much as Antigone is already dead before the play Antigone opens, Faustus is already lost before the good angel ever appears and urges him to repent.

But presumably God must know. The introduction of this play tells us that in the A version, Faustus is not saved because he is refused divine grace. This raises an interesting issue of causation for me. Is it that Faustus is refused divine grace, or merely that God knows Faustus is already lost? One might say that divine grace is not properly refused because God cannot refuse you something that it is impossible to give. So, divine grace is not refused, rather it is simply not possible. Of course, God is supposed to be omnipotent, so presumably He could save someone even if they were already lost. Thus, knowledge and causation meet in God. For God, all things are possible, and this should, presumably, extend to the ability to save someone who has damned himself. Or should it?

There is a long debate in medieval philosophy about whether God can really enact all things, or whether He must also obey fundamental laws of logic and physics. If He must obey fundamental laws, then perhaps he cannot save someone who has damned themselves. But this is a pretty bleak world. Not only is Faustus damned in a way in which he cannot save himself, but he is also damned in such a way that God also cannot save him. God cannot undo Faustus’s fate once his fate is sealed. This is pretty freaky stuff. Not only does Faustus lack free will here, so does God!

Curiously, the evil angel also seems to know that Faustus is beyond saving, even going so far as to say he is no longer human, and no longer has the free will to save himself. “Thou art a spirit, God cannot pity thee.” (Pg. 118) So, while the predestination of Faustus’s damnation is not known to the good angel, nor to Mephastophilis, the evil angel and God seem to have this knowledge. Or, perhaps the evil angel doesn’t know, but wants Faustus to believe that he does. The interaction between claims of knowledge and action is definitely worth considering in this play.

To complicate matters, there was a B version of the text written that largely erased this suggestion made in the A text. In the B version, Faustus has only himself to blame for his damnation. In the B version, the need of Lucifer and Mephastophilis to shower Faustus with gifts is fully intelligible. It isn’t just that they don’t know his fate is sealed but, rather, that his fate really isn’t sealed. He might, at any moment, choose to repent. And should that moment arrive, God will, of course, grant him divine grace. God is omnibenevolent, after all. Divine grace is part of the package.

In the B reading, then, Faustus and God are both beings of free will. Faustus freely damns himself. And whenever he seems to be questioning this choice, a demon with a shiny new toy appears to distract him from exercising his free will. But the demons don’t remove his free will, they just distract and pacify him. The B text, in other words, makes Faustus a freer and much less sympathetic character.

But, while our editor notes the places that mark the changes between the A and B text in our reading, it was surprising to me how little effect they had on the overall action of the play. And this seems to me to be because, free or not, neither Faustus nor most of the other members of the cast knows that Faustus is free (or not). Thus, they assume that he is free and act as though he is free.

This makes the evil angel all the more interesting. I am left wondering whether he really did know that Faustus was a spirit, or whether he only wanted Faustus to believe he was. If the former, this makes this otherwise unremarkable character the only one who stands on the same level as God in terms of knowledge. If the latter, then this makes the evil angel the only demon who openly deceives Faustus. Lucifer and Mephastophilis seem to deal quite openly with Faustus. They do not lie or deceive. So the evil angel becomes quite a puzzle to me.

Upon further contemplation, I think the evil angel must truly not know. In a later encounter with the good and evil angels, the evil angel does not seem so certain that Faustus cannot repent. Upon hearing the good angel urging Faustus to repent, the evil angel replies “If thou repent, devils shall tear thee to pieces.” (Pg. 123) But why threaten Faustus if he truly cannot repent? Clearly the evil angel must no longer be certain that Faustus can repent.Perhaps he never was certain.

I think that, perhaps, life is also like this. Free will debates in philosophy have certainly not gone away. And in different eras we sway towards believing in free will, or towards endorsing determinism. But we don’t know (yet). Yet–and this has been commented on a few times–most people, including philosophers who believe in determinism, act as though they were free (at least outside of the classroom). That is, even though we don’t know, we tend to assume that we are in control. We assume we are free to choose, even as we question this freedom. I wonder sometimes if it is at all possible to live without assuming free will. What would an entirely fatalistic life look like? Would one feel responsible for one’s own actions? Would one feel compelled to give advice to friends and family if one thought what they were doing was unwise? Or would one be able to resign oneself to fate, and claim everything was meant to be?

This is all getting a bit weighty and metaphysical. maybe it’s time for a distraction.



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